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Steve Flink: Murray is One Step Closer

1/26/2010 1:00:00 PM

 by Steve Flink

All through a long and ultimately disappointing 2009 campaign, Andy Murray seemed unfairly burdened by the considerable expectations of nearly everyone in the tennis community. British fans longed for Murray to establish himself as the first male player from their nation since Fred Perry in 1936 to secure a Grand Slam singles championship. Close followers of the sport from every corner of the globe assumed he would follow up on his final round appearance at the 2008 United States Open by taking the next step at a 2009 major. The media--- especially in Great Britain but elsewhere as well--- showered him with attention and assumed he would claim his place among the elite.  

Murray did not quite live up to those large expectations. He did make it to his first French Open quarterfinal, and he got to the penultimate round at Wimbledon, but he did not make it back to a major final, and he was scrutinized harshly by those who felt he should have performed better when it counted the most. But now, at the start of the 2010 season, Murray has put himself in an enviable position by reaching the Australian Open semifinals without conceding a set in five matches. He has displayed immense self assurance, discipline and determination. He has kept his emotions admirably under control. And as he heads into his semifinal appointment with Marin Cilic, Murray is playing the kind of tennis that can take him precisely where he wants to go.

I just finished watching the live broadcast of Murray toppling defending champion Rafael Nadal in their highly anticipated quarterfinal contest under the lights, and this was a very impressive piece of business. To b e sure, it was saddening for all of us to witness Nadal being forced to retire when he was down 6-3, 7-6 (2), 3-0. His right knee had started acting up early in the third set, and the Spaniard made the right precautionary move to not continue when he realized how restricted his movement had become. He has to hope that this apparent recurrence of the tendinitis that troubled him so significantly last year will not be an ongoing problem, and will not keep him out of a major as it did in 2009 at Wimbledon. Nadal made a sensible decision to not finish his Australian Open match with Murray because he clearly wanted to minimize the damage to that knee.

Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that he had played in comfort through the first two sets against Murray, and had simply been outplayed tactically and outperformed entirely by an obstinate adversary on the pivotal points in both sets. The tennis both men produced in both the first and second sets was often stupendous. Nadal’s ball striking was often dazzling and his court coverage was magnificent, but Murray largely held the upper hand because he had more options at his disposal and his speed was every bit as remarkable as Nadal’s.

Considering the standards that were set on both sides of the net, it was a shame that Nadal had the misfortune of hurting himself.  Murray seemed almost certainly on his way to a straight set triumph, and it would have been fitting to see him complete that task and have the satisfaction of winning with absolute clarity over one of his chief rivals. But anyone who watched them battle so ferociously across the first two sets knows full well that Murray had played probably his best tennis ever at a Grand Slam event, and he has every reason to be unreservedly proud of his performance on this occasion. He earned his victory fairly and squarely, and Nadal would be the first to concede that point.

From the outset, both players were primed for the appointment. A highly charged Nadal drew first blood in the opening set. He gained the first service break of the confrontation in the third game of the match. In an electrifying exchange at break point, Nadal chased down a Murray backhand volley with impeccable footwork, hooking his patented forehand down the line and around the net post, forcing Murray to retreat to the baseline in pursuit of that shot. Murray seemed to have rescued himself with a well directed forehand crosscourt, but the unwavering Nadal got to that ball and whipped a backhand down the line for a winner.

Nadal thus took a 2-1 lead. But Murray stopped the Spaniard right in his tracks. With Nadal serving in the fourth game, the inimitable left-hander rallied from 0-40 to 30-40, but Murray stifled him there by lofting an immaculate backhand topspin lob over the stranded Spaniard for a winner. It was 2-2, but Nadal surged to a 0-40 lead on Murray’s serve in the following game. Murray was unflustered. He came at Nadal forthrightly. At 0-40, he served-and-volleyed, sending his first serve down the T to the Nadal backhand and then punching a backhand first volley down the line for a winner, a pattern he would repeat at 30-40. In between, he cracked a flat two-handed backhand cleanly for a winner. That burst of aggression carried Murray to 3-2.

Nadal was plainly thrown off stride. In the following game, Murray sealed another break with an astounding backhand return winner. He was ahead 4-2, and then he made it to 5-2 by holding at 15. The depth of his second serve in that seventh game was extraordinary. Two games later, Murray served for the set, and once more Nadal pressed him hard. Down 15-40, Murray followed his serve in boldly to provoke an errant return. A backhand down the line winner by Murray made it deuce. In that crucial game, Murray connected with only 6 of 14 first serves, but he fought off a third break point with another serve-volley combination that Nadal could not counter.

Murray closed out that game on his third set point by going in behind his first serve again, forcing Nadal into an error on the backhand return. Murray had the set 6-3, but the hardest work was yet to come. Nadal won 12 of 13 points on serve to lead 3-2 in the second set. The match was delayed by over nine minutes by a fireworks display nearby in honor of “Australia Day”, but when play resumed Murray seemed to lose concentration. At 2-3, 15-40, he misplayed a forehand volley. Nadal advanced to 4-2, 15-0, but a double fault hurt him there. Murray broke back at 15 with a deep crosscourt forehand coaxing Nadal into a mistake off his two-hander.

Soon it was 4-4, and then 5-5. Serving in the eleventh game, Nadal was in a serious bind, trailing 15-40. He came forward to put away a smash, and then approached the net forcefully again at 30-40. Murray missed a difficult forehand pass, and Nadal was back to deuce. Down break point a third time, Nadal once more found himself at the net. He eagerly lunged to his right to make a backhand volley winner, but Murray earned another break point immediately. Nadal answered with an ace down the T, and soon held on to reach for 6-5. Serving in the twelfth game, Murray was twice two points from losing the second set, but he aced Nadal down the middle in both cases.

In the tie-break, Murray thoroughly outplayed Nadal. Nadal was so wary of Murray’s foot speed that he pressed off the forehand. Consecutive unforced errors off that side put Nadal behind 3-0. Murray charged to 4-1 with an overhead winner, put away another smash for 5-1, and coasted to a 7-2 victory in that crucial sequence. As the third set commenced, Murray held for 1-0, and it was in the following game that Nadal asked for the trainer to look at his ailing knee. He took an injury timeout, lost his serve for 2-0, and then Murray twice cast aside break points with aces wide to Nadal’s forehand in the Ad Court. Murray was up 3-0, and Nadal recognized that he needed to get off the court.

The bottom line is that Murray should now be poised to avenge his U.S. Open loss to Cilic with a victory over the 21-year-old Croatian in the semifinals at Melbourne. Murray had never lost to Cilic before, but he was routed in straight sets that afternoon, a victim of his own ineptitude as well as a soaring performance from Cilic. This time around, Murray should be ready.

Cilic has been taken to five sets in three of his five encounters en route to the semifinals, including a four hour, 38 minute marathon with U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, and a hard fought collision with Andy Roddick that also went the distance. Cilic has been remarkably resilient up until this point, but the view here is that all of the long battles across the fortnight will catch up with the No. 14 seed when he takes on Murray. Murray should pick the big man apart methodically to reach his second major final, and I believe he will have an excellent chance in the championship match, no matter who emerges from the other half of the draw.

The time is seemingly right for Murray.  No one in the tournament has taken a set off him. He knows he is closing in on a substantial opportunity. The victory over Nadal will add significantly to his already growing self conviction. He is carrying himself like a man who recognizes precisely what he wants, and understands just what it will take to reach his destination. While 2009 did not go strictly according to plan, the new season should bring rewards and accomplishments to Andy Murray that will carry him confidently into a future he has long envisioned for himself.  

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